Monday, May 30, 2011

The cost of renewable power in Hawaii

The Island of Hawaii produces over 40% of its electricity from renewable sources, yet electric power charges are up to 30% higher for users on the Big Island as compared to charges on Oahu.

Hawaii County has attracted investors in alternate energy sources like the geothermal plant in Puna, wind turbines in South Point and North Kohala, solar panels on homes and businesses around the island, and experimental projects at the National Energy Lab. In comparison, the island of Oahu burns cheaper coal, and old tires, in addition to oil, to produce its electricity.

Though wind farms and geothermal sources of energy are cheaper than feeding a coal fired plant, the costs to consumers remain high due to an agreement with the State that allows renewable energy producers, like Puna Geothermal in Hawaii to be compensated by Hawaiian Electric at the same rate per kilowatt hour (KWH) as electric power producers using oil, diesel, and naphtha. The surges in the price of oil products over the last few years means that Big Island electric users must pay more and more for their low-cost alternative energy sources while investors reap the windfall.

According to Hawaiian Electric Company (HELCO on the Big Island and HECO on Oahu) here are their average charges per Kilowatt hour for 2010:

Service Type Oahu Big IslandDifference
Residential users "P" 25.47 cents   35.31 cents     28%
Large power users "P" 20.09 cents   29.26 cents     31%
Medium power users "J" 22.72 cents   32.27 cents     30%
Small power users "G" 26.87 cents   40.29 cents     33%
Comm. refrig, AC users "H" 22.55 cents   35.59 cents     37%
Street lamps "F" 23.49 cents   33.95 cents     31%

The dramatically higher costs of electric on the Big Island is one the barriers businesses have when considering whether to locate on an outer island versus on Oahu. Here is a comparison of two residential electric bills last month from a condo in Kona on the Big Island and a condo in Honolulu on Oahu:

355 kilowatt hours = $112.35
non-fuel energy 27.14
base fuel energy 32.20
pbf surcharge 2.11
overall $.316 per KWH

413 kilowatt hours = $175.98
non-fuel energy 53.33
base fuel energy 69.17
pbf surcharge 2.45
overall $.426 per KWH

The difference is 11 cents per KWH or 26% more for electricity on the Big Island versus Oahu. And this difference may  increase if oil prices continue to escalate.

In 2008, the State signed an energy agreement which sought to decouple energy costs from fossil fuel prices for renewable energy contracts, but the existing contracts guarantee high returns for many years to come. Here are contract expiration dates for some of the major renewable power providers on the Big Island:

  • Puna Geothermal - 2027
  • Hawi wind farm - 2021
  • Tawhirl Power LLC’s South Point wind turbines – 2027
  • Wailuku River Hydroelectric power plant in Hilo - 2023

Only by decoupling these contracts from their energy payment rates based on oil costs will ratepayers on the outer islands have stable, long-term and predictable prices. For electric users in Hawaii, an option to stabilize your energy costs is to install your own alternative energy systems such as solar water heaters and solar panels. The cost of solar systems has dropped considerably, already down almost 50% in the last five years, making it faster to gain a return on the investment for a home based system.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Our first internet writers conference

Last week we “attended” an online writers conference where presenters from around the country created the experience of attending a live conference by providing interesting presentations, discussion, and applicable materials. This was very different from the expensive travel and hotel costs to Oahu we incurred in 2009 to attend what turned out to be the last writer’s conference in Hawaii.

The conference subject was about e-publishing focusing on the complex technology and marketing issues of writing and selling e-books. Since the speakers were calling in from their homes or offices they were very relaxed, spontaneous and more technical than the typical professional conference speakers we have heard standing at a lectern above the attendees sitting in hard chairs in a crowded room. And, since the speakers did not have to take time from their busy schedules to fly to the conference, there was more variety in their expertise and backgrounds. We heard from publishers from both coasts, marketing professionals, and published writers making a living in remote parts of the US. We were mentally exhausted at the end of each day, just like regular conferences we have attended in the past.

We logged onto a voice cast of each speaker and moderator and during the sessions, we and the other attendees posted questions by typing them into a shared message board. Most speakers had a slide set that we could view online or print out. The speakers and conference hosts were located all over the country, in different time zones, yet they only had to call in for their hour presentation and question session.

The conference started at 9AM Pacific standard time and ended at 6PM, which meant we had to be up and ready to participate at 6AM. Conference participants in New Zealand (which is 22 hours ahead of Hawaii time) had to be up at 4AM in our tomorrow. The conference ended at 3PM for us which gave us plenty of time for our afternoon swim.

We are delighted to find that we can attend a conference from our couch in Kona and not disrupt our life in Hawaii. It saved us two roundtrip airfares to the mainland, a rental car, 4 days of hotel and food costs, and the hassle of travel. We look forward to relying on these types of conferences to learn new technologies, connect with others, and support our writing and publishing in Hawaii.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Comparing radiation in Kona Hawaii to Tokyo Japan

Since the March 11 onset of the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan we have been concerned about radioactive fallout in Kona. However, our radiation monitoring, which started in December 2007, has consistently shown low levels of radiation on the island of Hawaii.

Several groups in Japan have been doing independent radiation monitoring of Tokyo and the Fukushima areas outside of the exclusion zone. We commend their great efforts and work to make a large collection of independent radiation data available to the public. Most radiation levels reported so far in Tokyo show minor increases, but many reports closer the reactors show significantly increased levels of radiation of up to 50 times background or more.

There have been video reports on YouTube showing increased radiation levels in the parks and streets of Tokyo.  On the internet one can never be sure what is real, so to offer a comparison for those with access to a detector, we posted a video of the low background readings here in Kona. You can compare our video to a video below showing higher readings in Tokyo.

Our detector measures in milli-REMs and the Tokyo detector in the video below measures in micro-Sieverts. (1 micro-Sievert = 0.1 milli-REM)  Our Kona readings are between .006 and .01 milli-REM which is equivalent to 0.06 and 0.1 micro-Sieverts.  In the Tokyo readings, he is getting up to 2 micro-Sieverts which is 20 times higher than here in Kona. We have a conversion gadget to help with converting between the different units of the instruments being used.

2011 Kona, Hawaii 2011 Tokyo, Japan

The concern we have about the radiation levels shown in the video in Tokyo is that the detector shows a huge drop in the radiation level, almost back to normal, when the detector is held up higher. When the detector is set on the ground it gets very high level readings which could indicate alpha or beta emitting nuclear contamination on the ground. With gamma emitting contamination, holding the detector a few feet higher usually does not decrease the readings. Though alpha radiation can’t penetrate in the air more than a few centimeters, it is 20 times more damaging to the body tissue than gamma or beta radiation. Alpha radiation external exposure can cause rashes where it touches the skin.

Below are links to other radiation monitoring efforts in Japan being performed by independent organizations and individuals

This is a link to an interesting project displaying radiation readings measured by teams that have attached detectors to car windows and reported readings combined with GPS data around Japan.
This is a video of radiation monitoring in an inhabited area near Fukushima in Koriyama park which shows 17 micro-Sieverts, which is over 8 times higher than the readings in Tokyo in the other video.